Amid controversy and turmoil, Orcas fire commissioners plan for a new levy proposal - Salish Current
February 1, 2024
Amid controversy and turmoil, Orcas fire commissioners plan for a new levy proposal
Minor Lile

A town hall on Feb. 3 will provide Orcasonians with a public forum for sharing their thoughts on the next funding proposal to support the island’s fire and rescue services. (OIFR FB image)

February 1, 2024
Amid controversy and turmoil, Orcas fire commissioners plan for a new levy proposal
Minor Lile

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A town hall meeting is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 3, to hear public testimony regarding the timing and contents of a new levy measure. The meeting will be at the Orcas Center on Orcas Island beginning at 1 p.m.

It has been a tumultuous time for Orcas Island Fire and Rescue. 

At the November 2023 election, 74% of voters voted against a levy measure to provide for future capital and operating expenditures for the fire district. The proposed levy was identical to a measure that had been defeated in August by a similar margin. The current levy that was adopted in 2014 expires on Jan. 1, 2025.

At the same November election, three new commissioners were elected to the five-member board of commissioners by wide majorities. Brian Ehrmantraut received nearly 82% of the vote in his race and Randy Gaylord garnered 72.5%. Kate Hansen was elected with just over 56% against Toni Knudson. Both Hansen and Knudson had received more votes than the appointed incumbent in the August primary. Incumbent Jim Biddick was appointed to his seat in March 2023 and was unopposed in his election to a full term. The fifth member of the commission, incumbent Tim Fuller, is serving in his second term which continues through December 2025. 

Because four of the five seats had been held by appointed commissioners, the newly elected commissioners took their seats immediately after the election was certified by the San Juan County Elections office on Nov. 28. Ehrmantraut was elected chair, replacing Fuller, who had served as chair since February 2022. Since the November election, the commission has met six times and increased the number of regular meetings from one to two per month.

Over the course of the last two months, tensions within the department have increasingly come to the surface. Both within the department and in the wider community there are passionately held views on the various issues that have come to the fore.

Since early December, four key staff — a recently hired finance manager, the director of personnel, the safety officer and the district secretary — have resigned.

Volunteers: ‘no-confidence’

In January, the situation became more intense. At a Jan. 16 regular meeting, commissioners Ehrmantraut, Hansen and Gaylord voted to authorize expenditure of up to $20,000 to provide for a review of the employment agreement signed last August between the department and Chief Holly vanSchaick. 

Biddick and Fuller voted against the motion and, immediately following the vote, vanSchaik expressed her dismay at the decision. During the public comment period at the same meeting, the district secretary announced her resignation.

Four days later, the department’s eight volunteer lieutenants (there are 12 lieutenants in all, eight volunteers and four career officers) and the department’s newly appointed safety officer released a public letter of no-confidence in Ehrmantraut, Gaylord and Hansen. 

The letter requested that the board of commissioners respond by Jan. 26 to the concerns expressed. Ehrmantraut said the request could not be met under the provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act, which requires sufficient public notice prior to any meeting of a majority — three or more members of the five member commission. 

“I’m currently trying to navigate that issue and don’t want to go into too many details,” Ehrmantraut added. “I can say that I have spoken with their appointed representative and we are working on the possibility of calling a special meeting of the full commission sometime in the next two weeks to meet with the signers of the letter to provide them with an opportunity to share their concerns with us directly,” 

Levy options

In the midst of the turmoil, the commission is proceeding with bringing a revised levy measure to the ballot sometime this year. One option the commissioners are considering is a one- to two-year measure that would be placed on the ballot in April. 

The stop-gap measure would assure that sufficient funds are available for operations and ongoing maintenance of facilities and equipment maintenance in 2025 and perhaps into 2026. The question of how to approach providing sufficient capital funds for future acquisition of new equipment and vehicles is less defined. Ideas range from proceeding with an additional levy measure to issuance of a bond.

To have a vote in April, the commission must adopt a resolution approving placing a levy proposal on the ballot by Feb. 23 in order to submit the necessary information to the county auditor. In addition to this Saturday’s town hall meeting, the commission is scheduled to meet on Feb. 5 and 20. 

Effects on service?

As to whether there would be a point at which the turmoil within the department might affect service to the community, the commissioners expressed varied levels of concern.

“When people see this level of dissent or discord, it doesn’t inspire trust in the fire department” Ehrmantraut said. “My personal concern is that this current situation will reduce the community’s desire to fund the fire department. But if they don’t fund the department, that will be bad for the health and safety of the island.”

Fuller noted impacts on the department: “I absolutely have concerns about this … [it] is wearing on people. I’ve talked to volunteers who say it just doesn’t feel good when you think you’ve got the community with you, but too many of these little things look like well, maybe not.”

The potential problem with that, noted Biddick, is that if a majority of volunteers leave, “what are you going to do for services?”

For Gaylord, the mission of the department has not changed. “I’m very alert to that potential. But no one has disagreed on our mission. Our mission remains the same: providing good service as neighbors helping each other. We want the 911-call people to show up. If there’s a fire, we want people to be safe and keep the fire from spreading and save anybody who needs to be saved. And I have confidence that’s going to continue.”

Hansen expressed optimism in that regard. “I can’t predict the future, but I think that we’ll be able to work through things,” she said.

A levy lift?

Responses varied, when commissioners were asked by Salish Current how important they feel securing passage of a levy lift is to funding the department’s needs. Answers below are lightly edited for clarity and conciseness. (An interview with vanSchaik could not be arranged in time for her perspective to be included. Written questions that Salish Current provided to the chief also went unanswered.)

Salish Current: How much urgency is there in securing the passage of a levy lift to fund OIFR’s operations and capital needs?

Ehrmantraut: It is absolutely essential that it be done this year. When Jan. 1, 2025, comes, the existing lift expires and at that time departmental revenues drop precipitously.

I would like something on the April ballot to at least ensure funding for one or two years because it seems the August and November elections will be quite complicated with other issues. The commissioners agreed several meetings ago that that was the direction we were going to take. To aim for a sustaining levy based on the 2024 budget with some additions to account for inflation and rebuilding our capital reserves and contingency funds, which have been significantly depleted over the past few years. That would at least ensure the department can function in 2025 and 2026. That work is in progress and the town hall meeting on Feb. 3 will provide an opportunity for the public to provide input on what they would like to see with the levy.

My biggest message is that I would like to see the volunteer lieutenants, the fire chief, the volunteers and professional staff, and all the members of the community start working together to support funding the department. I’d like people to take a step back and think about what that would look like because I do not believe personally that what’s going on now increases the chance of getting the department funded. And if we don’t get that done the consequences to our ability to deliver our services will be severe. So please give the commission and the chief time to sort out these governance and process issues while at the same time working on the levy.

Biddick: I’m pushing for it. It’s got to be done. If it doesn’t get done the department is going to be in a world of hurt. What it’s going to look like, I have no idea. That’s what the town hall meeting will bring out. One concern I have is that if you have a separate levy for operations and a bond for equipment, what are you going to do if the equipment bond doesn’t pass? In my view, it’s going to be hard to pass both a levy and a bond.

Hansen: I would prefer to see something on the April ballot. It’s definitely of high importance and urgency. My understanding after (the commission’s) Jan. 2 meeting was that the whole board and the chief were in agreement with this notion of going forward with a short-term measure to keep things functional and allow us to still provide the services that the community needs while we give ourselves time to figure out the right longer-term solution. That’s what I am anticipating we’re going to be able to do.

Gaylord: We are on track to meet our targets and meet the deadline to adopt a resolution for a levy lid lift. I don’t know all the terms of it, and can’t say yet what the amount is, but I can say that we are on track to adopt it in time for inclusion on the April ballot. 

The upcoming town hall is both an educational opportunity as well as a decision point for many people. It’s an opportunity to tell people about what the needs of the fire district are and it’s an opportunity for people to express their desire for service levels and to see that we have staffing for the service level that they expect to have in both the fire department and the emergency medical services. They can also express their concerns about why they didn’t approve the prior levy. I’m really anxious to hear from the public and listen to what they have to say.

Fuller: I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen with that. Apparently, there’s some kind of group out there that’s conjuring up some kind of levy proposal. They’ve not talked to Holly [Chief van Schaick]. They didn’t talk to Audra, our finance manager, who left because she felt the culture was untenable with the new commissioners. She did not like the way people were being treated. And there’s not one fire representative on that group. One of the things I’ve always said is that a community assumes its own level of risk. They do that by providing a level of resources that they feel is sufficient. The other thing that happens which is really scary is that people don’t realize what level of service they are getting until they don’t get it anymore.

— Reported by Minor Lile

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